India police charge Muslim leader with culpable homicide over COVID-19 cluster

India police charge Muslim leader with culpable homicide over COVID-19 cluster


India has brought charges of culpable homicide against the chief of a Muslim seminary for holding a gathering last month that authorities blame for a big jump in coronavirus infections, police said Thursday.

The headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat group in a cramped corner of New Delhi were sealed and thousands of followers, including some from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, were taken into quarantine after it emerged they had attended meetings there in mid-March.

Authorities have said some of those infected at the gathering beginning on March 3 had died, although the numbers have not yet been released.

Police initially filed a case against Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, the chief of the centre, for violating a ban on big gatherings but had now invoked the law against culpable homicide, a police spokesperson said.

“Delhi police had filed a first information report earlier against the Tablighi chief; now section 304 has been added,” the officer said, referring to culpable homicide in the penal code, which carries a maximum punishment of a 10-year prison term.

A spokesperson for the Tablighi Jamaat group, Mujeeb-ur Rehman, declined to comment, saying they had not confirmed reports about the new charges.

The Tablighi is one of the world’s biggest Sunni Muslim proselytizing organizations, with followers in more than 80 countries, promoting a pure form of Islam.

In New Delhi, 1,080 of its 1,561 cases were linked to the group’s gathering, according to the city government data on Wednesday.

But critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government have cautioned against fanning communal tension by laying the blame for the spread of the coronavirus on the Muslim group.

The policies of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party regarding minorities had already come under scrutiny owing to a recent citizenship law that appeared to favour non-Muslims, as well as last year’s lockdown of India-administered Kashmir and Jammu.

Modi was also criticized for a March 25 lockdown that came with little notice. In some areas, it sent citizens to shops en masse to hoard food supplies, while tens of thousands of migrant workers crammed into buses or walked for days to get back to their native villages.

India has 12,759 cases of coronavirus and 420 deaths. The federal health ministry said it had identified 170 districts out of the country’s total of 720 as red zones with the highest number of cases.

These included the big cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Hyderabad.

“We want to stop the virus from spreading into non-red zones,” said Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in the health ministry.

Falling through the cracks

To help enforce a lockdown in what is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, authorities in Mumbai are using drones, reoriented traffic cameras and turned to heat maps, but these can fall short when it comes to maze-like slum alleys.

“Hundreds will fall through the cracks, thousands. But as long as it is not in millions, we are safe,” said Praveen Pardeshi, who heads the city’s main civic body.

Mumbai is home to around 12 million people, of which some 65 per cent live in slums. A further six million people are estimated to live in peripheral districts. Authorities have cordoned off parts of the slums, set up special fever clinics and created massive quarantine centres in a stadium and empty government buildings.

A man walks on scattered footwear after a large crowd of migrants were forced to disperse by police in Mumbai on Wednesday, a scene that reflected the challenges of trying to lock down a densely populated mega-city. (Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters)

But the restrictions are hard to observe when living at such close quarters. On a recent afternoon in a narrow passage encumbered by goats and electrical wire, police officers pleaded with a dozen Dharavi residents to go home.

Asif Siddiqui, a construction shop worker who lives in a one-room apartment with six family members, stayed put.

“They ask us to keep one-metre distance, but my home is two metres long. We are trying to co-operate, but it is impossible to stay home in a place like this,” said Siddiqui.

Confirmed cases in the city have ticked up above 1,900, including 113 deaths, making up around 15 per cent of India’s more than 12,000 known cases.

Mumbai’s Dharavi, often considered Asia’s biggest slum with an estimated 1 million residents, has reported 71 cases and experts fear the number could climb quickly.

Authorities stress that part of Mumbai’s high rates stem from more aggressive testing. The city has conducted 2,374 tests per million, versus 448 per million in capital New Delhi, according to a Mumbai government report reviewed by Reuters.

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